This holiday season brings more than the commemoration of events from two millenniums ago. Tomorrow, Palm Sunday, marks the 50th anniversary of the execution of Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer by the Nazis, and special services this weekend and beyond will commemorate his death and his contribution to 20th century theology.
Bonhoeffer's letters and meditations have made him a favorite source for individuals struggling with personal faith journeys. His ideas on religion working through society have been invoked by American civil rights leaders, liberation theologians in Latin America and leaders in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Most recently, evangelical Christians have looked to Bonhoeffer's intense piety and, unlike some modern theologians, his frequent references to biblical texts.
Much of Bonhoeffer's appeal is a result of his martyrdom for conspiring to kill Hitler, and "he might not be remembered in quite the same light if he had not died for his convictions and his actions," said Wayne W. Floyd Jr., director of the Bonhoeffer Center at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Because of his death, though, he became a modern exemplar of the devout person weighing his religious convictions in acting against perceived evil.
When it appeared that Bonhoeffer's life might be in danger in 1939, American friends helped him leave Germany. But after a torturous month of introspection in New York, he decided to return. "Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization," he wrote to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. "I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make this choice in security."
Bonhoeffer's concern extended beyond Christianity. In the early 1930s, he was one of the first Germans to acknowledge publicly that Hitler's rise to power meant war in Europe and certain danger for the Jews. The Confessing Church, which emerged in reaction to the state-sanctioned Protestant church and of which Bonhoeffer was a part, eventually would hide "in excess of 1,000 Jews" from the Nazis, said Sybil Milton, senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In Germany, Bonhoeffer is generally known for his role in the resistance, said Ekkehard Brose, press counselor at the German Embassy. "In terms of honor and morality, it is important that even in that dark period of time, a few very courageous people held up moral ideals. Bonhoeffer was one of them."
Yet his reputation in the German religious community is mixed, said the Rev. Ulrich Wolf-Barnett, pastor of the German Lutheran Church, a German-language congregation of 95 households that meets at Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Bethesda. "Some hate it," Wolf-Barnett said of Bonhoeffer's system that "brings together theology and society with political consequences. He is still controversial for what he did."
Other Germans praise Bonhoeffer's courage and identify with his personal struggle, Wolf-Barnett said. For Bonhoeffer raises a question for all people of conviction: "Is my faith just something in my own house, my own room?"
Brought up as a traditional Lutheran, Bonhoeffer was taught that the worlds of spirituality and politics should remain separate. Through his observations and travails, he developed a theology that faith is inseparable from politics and society. He also criticized the bureaucracy and rote nature of the institutionalized church, called for a "religionless Christianity" and rejected the "cheap grace" offered by the church that requires no personal sacrifice.
Such ideas have made Bonhoeffer a patron saint of religious activists throughout the world.
Floyd, director of the Bonhoeffer center, said he has seen an upswing of interest in the last decade, from mainline Protestantism to evangelical Christianity. Whereas liberal Christians identify with Bonhoeffer's call for social action, conservative Christians find resonance with his religious devotion and reverence for scripture, Floyd said.
Most recently, antiabortion activists seeking to justify violence against clinic doctors have been invoking Bonhoeffer's name and example, Floyd said. This is a "fundamental misreading and misappropriation" of Bonhoeffer, he said. "He is such a complex figure that it is very easy to prove your own point of view rather than engage him as an independent theologian in his own right."
Bonhoeffer has long been popular in U.S. seminaries and universities, especially through his works "The Cost of Discipleship" and "Letters and Papers From Prison," the culmination of his thought composed during two years in prison.
"His writings still simply speak to the present day," said John Godsey, acting dean at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. "He challenges the church to have a nonreligious' interpretation for biblical faith." He also has gained more popular appeal, said Godsey, who published one of the first books in English on Bonhoeffer's theology. Bonhoeffer's "Life Together," about Christians sharing as a community, is often used by "spirituality and small groups," he said.
Bonhoeffer was the son of a renowned psychiatrist- neurologist and the descendant of a long line of influential Germans, including his great-grandfather Carl von Hase, a distinguished 19th century theologian.
His family opposed the Nazis from the beginning. In 1933, after the persecution of Jews had begun, Bonhoeffer's 92-year-old grandmother is said to have elbowed her way through a picket of storm troopers to a Jewish shop. "I do my shopping where I want to," she told them.
One brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, worked undercover in the Abwehr, or military intelligence, gathering evidence of Nazi atrocities. He persuaded Bonhoeffer to become involved. He and another brother-in-law, Ruediger Schleicher, were executed for their roles in the plot against Hitler, as was Bonhoeffer's brother Klaus.
Bonhoeffer's tale is full of other dramatic elements: his stand against the majority "German Christians," led by Reich Bishop Ludwig Mueller, who were supportive of the Nazi regime; his operation of an underground seminary for two years before it was discovered and shut down; his arrest by the Gestapo at his parents' home in April 1943; the Nazis' failure for more than a year to find evidence to convict him of high treason; and a compassionate guard's assistance in smuggling letters and books with coded messages in and out of prison.
Bonhoeffer's correspondence with his family and with Eberhard Bethge, his closest friend and biographer, is well known through his "Letters and Papers From Prison." This week, Abingdon Press in Nashville released "Love Letters From Cell 92," correspondence between Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer, an 18-year-old woman to whom he got engaged just before going to prison.
Bethge, who has called his friend "an odd sort of saint who was also a conspirator," did not know of Bonhoeffer's execution until mid-July 1945. But a record of that day at Flossenbuerg concentration camp comes from the camp doctor, who watched the 39-year-old minister die along with four other conspirators, including Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, one of the highest-ranking military dissidents:
"Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. "At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God." WRITINGS
"Every man is called separately, and must follow alone. But men are frightened of solitude, and they try to protect themselves from it by merging themselves in the society of their fellow-men and in their material environment. They become suddenly aware of their responsibilities and duties, and are loath to part with them. But all this is only a cloak to protect them from having to make a decision. They are unwilling to stand alone before Jesus and to be compelled to decide with their eyes fixed on him alone."
-- "THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP" (1937) "The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling."
-- "LETTERS AND PAPERS FROM PRISON" (from "OUTLINE FOR A BOOK," 1944)
"Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. Following Christ means passio pasiva, suffering because we have to suffer."
-- "THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP" (1937)
"We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: We have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?"
-- "AFTER TEN YEARS" (1942)
"I'm so glad to be able to write you a Christmas letter, and to be able, through you, to convey my love to my parents and my brothers and sisters, and to thank you all. Our homes will be very quiet at this time. But I have often found that the quieter my surroundings, the more vividly I sense my connection with you all. It's as if, in solitude, the soul develops organs of which we're hardly aware in everyday life. So I haven't for an instant felt abandoned. . . . We've now been waiting for each other for almost two years, dearest Maria. Don't lose heart!"
-- "LOVE LETTERS FROM CELL 92" (last recorded letter to Maria von Wedemeyer, Dec. 19, 1944) REMEMBERING BONHOEFFER
Special services commemorating the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer will be held at various locations in the Washington-Baltimore area in the coming weeks. Here is a sampling:
* At 4 p.m. tomorrow, Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church and Bethesda Jewish Congregation will present the "Bonhoeffer-Triptychon," a choral and instrumental tribute consisting of musical "panels" composed by three Germans -- a Protestant, a Roman Catholic and a Jew. The work was commissioned by Union Theological Seminary in New York, where Bonhoeffer studied in 1930 and where the music premiered in 1992. The mixed choir, organ, solo voices and cello will be directed by Donald S. Sutherland. Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, 6601 Bradley Blvd. Free. 301-365-2850. * At 3 p.m. tomorrow in Baltimore, an ecumenical group of Christian clergy will hold a service at the Holocaust Memorial at Gay and Lombard streets "honoring the memory of the 6 million Jews who were victims of the Holocaust by recalling the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer." After the service, participants will walk to nearby Zion Church for music, prayers and testimonies about Bonhoeffer. 410-727-3939. * At 7:30 p.m. Monday, the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America will hold a commemorative service at St. Luke Lutheran Church, 9100 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Bishop Harold Jansen will preside over the readings, meditations and prayers by children. Jerome Barry will serve as cantor. 301-588-4363. * Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer's biographer and recipient of many of the "Letters From Prison," will come to Washington during the last week in April for several events. Accompanying him will be his wife and Bonhoeffer's niece, Renate Bethge-Schleicher.
At 12:30 p.m. April 28, Bethge will speak on "Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Response to Kristallnacht" at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenburg Place SW. Reservations required: 202-488-6162. At 7 that evening, Bethge and Bethge-Schleicher will attend a German-language service and potluck supper in their honor at the United Church, 1920 G St. NW. 703-527-4389.
Bethge will conclude his visit April 30 at Washington National Cathedral, Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues NW, where he will preach at the 11 a.m. service. 202-537-6200. * A dramatic reading of the letters between Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer and Bonhoeffer and Bethge will be given May 7 at the 9:30 and 11 a.m. services at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, Nebraska and New Mexico avenues NW. The Rev. Alan Geyer, professor at Wesley Theological Seminary and resident ethicist at Washington National Cathedral, will play the role of Bonhoeffer. 202-363-4900. CAPTION: A montage indicative of the times: The Reich Bishop is portrayed getting Christianity into line, circa 1934. CAPTION: Bonhoeffer, second from right, at Tegel Interrogation Prison in Berlin. The staff sergeant, center, arranged the photograph. At right, Bonhoeffer in August 1935.